Big Green figure skating ices the competition

This week, ESPN.com is featuring a few of the best non-NCAA-sanctioned programs in the country.

Nicole Newman, a junior co-captain on the Dartmouth College figure skating club, detests the stomach-sinking sensation that comes with defeat.

Newman says, like any competitor, the thought of losing torments sporting souls. On a more physical level, however, the reality of failure is palpable. It's cold and harsh; it bruises and breaks.

"Ice is really hard," Newman says. "And we make it look pretty, but when you come to our practices and see us keep trying a triple- or double-jump and we keep falling and falling, it's hard. Then we finally land, it feels amazing."

Fortunately for Newman and Dartmouth's figure skating team, falls -- both in the standings and on the ice -- have been few and far between in recent years. In fact, the Big Green's most recent class of graduating seniors went their entire careers without losing a single collegiate meet en route to four consecutive U.S. National Intercollegiate Figure Skating Team championships.

"It takes of lot of pieces coming together and a lot of hard work [to win]," says Loren McGean, who began co-coaching the team with her father Mike in 2002. "We've had people say, 'You're lucky.' and I say, 'We're not lucky, but we're very fortunate.' What you see is a lot of hard work by a handful of people."

Dartmouth's program, which just completed its 10th season, has lutzed and whirled its way to the top of collegiate figure skating at an Apollo Ohno-esque pace. And while that fact has delighted many, it has surprised few.

Winning is not necessarily expected at the Hanover, N.H., based college. After all, the Big Green men's basketball team won their last Ivy League title in the 1958-59 season -- well before March was considered the month of madness. Still, whether it is in academics or extracurriculars, excellence and execution are part of the regular routine at Dartmouth.

"We are really proud of what it takes to get to where they are," says Joann Brislin, Dartmouth's assistant director of athletics who overseas club sports. "Whether [the team is] first or second or third, the fact that they are committing to excellence is what we are most proud of. We are happy for them in their success, but to me the pride comes in the process."

The process that leads to the pride wasn't always painless. In fact, it required intense efforts on the part of a few ambitious students and one rink rat-turned-exec.

The figure skating club, which like all Dartmouth sports doesn't award athletic scholarships, was founded by former student Amy Stetson during the 1996-97 school year. In order to get the program off the ground, Stetson turned to Mike McGean -- the college's secretary at the time -- for help.

Not coincidentally, McGean's knowledge expanded beyond academic administration. In fact, McGean was formerly one of the world's top ice arena aficionados.

In the 1940s and 1950s, McGean traveled the world skating competitively as a member of the U.S. national program. In 1951, McGean and his wife, Lois, won the World Ice Dancing Championship. After he retired from competitive skating, he coached the sport on the individual level, and he was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1992.

Needless to say, McGean embraced the chance to start a program at Dartmouth.

"[Mike] is a world champion figure skater, he actually thought it was a wonderful cause and something that was lacking at a school that he dedicated his life to," Loren McGean says. "And Amy is a very passionate personality."

In the early stages of the figure skating club's existence, the team was closer to dwelling in the cellar than raising title banners.

"There were years when we just never won a competition. … I think that helped us look to the future and coming in the top 'X' number was acceptable," Loren McGean says.

Rarely have show tunes been associated with sport; a typical figure skating meet, however, could be better-suited for Broadway than the Boston Garden.

Dartmouth participates in about three regional competitions annually -- the results of these contests determine the teams that will participate in the national meet. A typical competition consists of 35 events that cater to skaters of different skill levels. A meet can last more than 18 hours over two days.

Unlike traditional figure skating competitions that focus on individual results, collegiate skating rewards the team as a whole. The team concept gives skaters the chance to rely on someone other than themselves on and off the ice.

"I think that was one of the biggest changes when I came to college. Having it become a team sport was really exciting," Newman says. "That's probably one of my favorite parts of being on a team and not competing against everyone."

As with any non-revenue sport, the Big Green's skaters rely heavily on outside support. This past spring, Dartmouth announced the creation of the Mike McGean Endowment. The fund will continue to support the program's $80,000 budget for years to come.

Loren McGean says the respect her father's credentials command has been instrumental in the team's ability to sustain itself as a non-revenue entity.

"There is just an instant respect when someone learns that he was a world ice dance champ," she says. "The status he reached in the skating world that demands an immediate acknowledgement from a skater. When someone finds out that he is in the program, it has a power to it. That's not specific to my father. That is the dynamics of our values."

Of course, the contributions of both father and daughter are most evident on the ice. It is on the rink, after all, where they help Dartmouth's skaters sharpen their craft. The team's expertise was on display April 14 and 15 when the college hosted the intercollegiate championships for the first time at Thompson Arena.

For a team that rarely hosts home meets, the championship event was a chance for the Big Green to showcase their skills.

"It was nice that Dartmouth had nationals this year because all of the alums who have helped the team got to come see us skate," Newman says. "It was kind of our little thank you -- letting them see what they had done for the program."

The fact that Dartmouth hosted the marquee event in collegiate skating raised the program's profile on campus and nationally. The team's fourth championship trophy is currently on display in the student center. And these days, when college president James Wright lists the school's laundry list of accomplishments in public forums, the Big Green's skating success is among them.

"It's rewarding to be acknowledged because for quite a while we were invisible," Loren McGean says. "People like the story of creating something out of nothing. I guess that's a lot of people's dreams -- to create something out of nothing. The fact that we've been successful and won national championships is a nice story, and I hope it's inspirational to people."

Brendan Murphy is an assistant editor at ESPN.com. He can be reached at Brendan.R.Murphy@espn3.com.